Twenty-sixteen will not be remembered as a great year. Icons passed on (Bowie, Prince), Donald Trump was elected president, and none of us listened when noted Calabasas soothsayer, Kylie Kristen Jenner, predicted that this would be the year of “realizing stuff.” But 2016 was very good for television, and we were lucky enough to have been gifted some of the strongest episodes of TV since before the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike. Television was so good this year that narrowing down a list of the best new series was so difficult that we could only narrow it down to a dozen of the best new series that debuted this year — plus a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut.
“Atlanta” Donald Glover’s original, surreal, hilariously dark comedy about two cousins trying to make it in the rap scene in Atlanta was perhaps the most innovative new series of the fall 2016 season. Apt comparisons have been made to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and its twisted sense of humor, but with nothing else like it on television, “Atlanta” exists in a category all its own. With mostly newcomers in the cast, every performer hits their mark, with more than a fair share subverting and contradicting expectations to the extreme. It’s rare that a new series will start off as fully formed as “Atlanta” did, with each episode better and more surprising than the last.
Best Episode: Episode 9, “Juneteenth” Pushing cartoonish stereotypes to an almost illogical extreme, “Juneteenth” is one of the most absurd episodes of a show that delights in absurdity. Following Donald Glover’s Earn and Zazie Beetz’s Van to a “Freedom Day” celebration at a rich interracial couple’s mansion, “Juneteenth” is maybe best described in Earn’s own words: as if Spike Lee directed Eyes Wide Shut.
“Search Party” Alia Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds and Meredith Hagner portray a group of postgrad millennial best friends, embarking on a search to find a missing former college classmate (whom none of them knew very well in the first place). The key art for “Search Party” riffs on classic young adult mystery novels, and graces us with a satire that could be described as “Nancy Drew” meets “Girls.” While each episode is its own hysterically wacky gem, the search of a missing girl that no one really knows as the driving force of the show propels the plot forward evenly in just about every episode. (It’s totally binge-worthy.) John Early’s character’s rampant narcissism and facial expressions are laugh out loud funny, and Alia Shawkat’s self-absorbed heroine is existentially tortured to a relatable degree. “Search Party” is a true satire, and one of the few shows that manages to sensitively, sympathetically skewer New York twentysomethings we all love to hate and hate to love.
Best Episode: Episode 6, “The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony” Part of the fun of watching “Search Party” is waiting to see who will show up from the stellar recurring cast. In “The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony,” expectations are inverted when Meredith Hagner’s dinner table monologue slays, adding depth to a character whose main traits are vanity and vacuousness. Meanwhile, national treasure Parker Posey reappears as a Brooklyn cult leader. It’s a riot.
“Stranger Things” The success of “Stranger Things” can most likely be chalked up to an audience that came for Winona Ryder, stayed for the kids, and reveled in that amazing 80’s-inspired synth score that percolated throughout each episode. The Duffer Brothers took their talents to Netflix to explore grief and 80’s nostalgia, two elements that sometimes come off as cloying and trite now and then, but Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin lay bare an honest and comforting survey of the (mostly platonic) love that is shared between friends, especially in adolescence. In watching “Stranger Things,” one can’t help but think that it must not be a coincidence that the current 2016 political climate feels a lot like “the Upside-Down”; we can only hope that there will be justice for Barb next year.
Best Episode: Episode 4, “Chapter Four: The Body” At this point in the season, viewers are not yet completely privy to where Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven came from, why her nose keeps bleeding, and what the Hawkins Lab has to do with Will Byers’ disappearance. However, those instantly meme-able Christmas lights that Winona Ryder’s Joyce uses to communicate with her lost son, not to mention Eleven’s makeover scene (an homage to E.T. and a clear instance of the trope of men projecting and inscribing meaning on the bodies of women) make this episode the most intriguing one to unpack.
‘Stranger Things’ Star Millie Bobby Brown Is Here to Stay
“Westworld” The tale of a twisted Wild West theme park that features gorgeous “Stagecoach”-inspired landscapes, extremely human-like simulacra, and badass female characters who really take the reigns by the end of the season, “Westworld” is an examination of human consciousness and ontology. The initial question of “Who controls the hosts?” evolves into, “Who controls us, and where do we find our purpose?” With any story that presents itself as being about artificial intelligence on the surface, one should expect that it will ultimately become a narrative about what it truly means to be a human being. Based on the Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller, “Westworld,” an obviously expensive HBO show, fills the space of the glossy Sunday night prestige drama when “Game of Thrones” is not on the air. The stellar performances from a A-list cast lend human drama to the puzzles, games, and questions that beget more questions, which are all par for the course when settling into this adult playground.
Best Episode: Episode 8, “Trace Decay” The episode is mystifying and tragic, and occasionally attempts to set its audience up for a twist, but “Trace Decay” offers clarity as it presents more character backstories (Teddy, the Man in Black, Arnold) that have been waiting to reveal themselves for the entire season. Most intriguing is the story of Maeve (Thandie Newton), the host who comes to life on her own, relives her memories, and seeks insight into her past “loop” as a homesteader with a daughter. She has more power and control in this episode, setting a liberation plan in motion while also exposing the degree to which the hosts of “Westworld” can experience a range of human emotions, including grief.
“High Maintenance” Series creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair successfully adapted their web series with a cult following, with a glossier, more polished version of “High Maintenance” on HBO. A higher production value doesn’t ruin the show; Blichfeld and Sinclair, um, maintained the original spirit that made the web series so great, with a season that was emotional and exhilarating. The weed dealer plot device allows them to tell the funny, engaging, and sometimes tragic stories of the often unknowingly intertwined lives of New Yorkers just trying to maintain.
Best Episode: Episode 6, “Ex” Michael Cyril Creighton as the grieving, agoraphobic, La Croix-collecting Patrick is a tragic and charming exhibition of loneliness, but “Ex” is also one of the rare occasions where the audience gets a clear insight into The Guy’s personal life and relationships with not only his customers, but those who know him as someone other than a dealer. A perfect ending to a short season, “Ex” was illuminating and sweet. We can’t wait to see where this goes when the series returns next year.
“Better Things” There is no series as honest and frank about intergenerational female relationships on the air right now. It’s makes Pamela Adlon’s family comedy “Better Things” so genuine and addicting. Mothers and daughters are inexplicably cruel to one another, and their relationships are messy and complicated, but there is a warmth that infuses Adlon’s portrayal of her life as a working single actress mother in Los Angeles, with three daughters who all have amazing, somewhat masculine names (Max, Frankie, Duke).
Best Episode: Episode 5, “Future Fever” Pamela Adlon’s Sam struggles just as much as her daughters do with with truly listening to one another. In “Future Fever,” her teenage daughter gets to stay up late with the grownups, only to reveal to them that, beneath her too-cool exterior, she is actually very anxious about her future. The room goes silent, and as Sam tries to interject, her friends encourage her to hold back and really listen to her daughter’s concerns. In one of the series’ most heartwarming scenes, Sam later takes her shopping for a blazer — the point being that everyone, including Sam, is still faking at having it all figured out.
“Fleabag” In perhaps the darkest new series to premiere in 2016, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge shines in “Fleabag,” breaking the fourth wall to address and invite the audience into her interior monologues. Everything about the riotous series is completely warped: Fleabag’s humor, her relationship to sex and death, her relationship to her family. But by the end of the first season, it dawns on the viewer that through the veneer of batty humor, they have witnessed the evolution and aftermath of a tragedy of human proportions.
Best Episode: Episode 6 The finale of “Fleabag” is so devastating and ruinous that it may be the best episode of the season. The protagonist is revealed to be her own antagonist in nearly each episode, but in this finale the viewer finally learns what really happened to Fleabag’s deceased best friend, and her relationship with her family is truly laid bare. It becomes very clear that Fleabag’s attempts to search for meaning and avoid guilt via casual sex are at the root of her best friend’s demise.
“Insecure” It is thrilling to have a comedy series on HBO with an all-black ensemble cast, navigating the Los Angeles that is not often revealed on the whiter contemporaries of “Insecure,” like “You’re The Worst” or “Transparent.” In addition to watching the hilariously tone deaf white employees that star and creator Issa Rae works with every day, or the fluidity of her best friend Molly’s code-switching in varied company, the most fascinating component of “Insecure” is its exploration of intra-racial class politics. Issa works for a nonprofit, and Molly is a lawyer. Their apartments, wardrobes and outlooks on life and love couldn’t be more different, and when their other college friends and romantic interests are introduced, one of the driving conflicts is their socioeconomic position. With music supervisors and consultants like Solange and Raphael Saadiq, each episode features a soundtrack that grooves to match the tone set by Rae and the rest of the superbly funny cast.
Best Episode: Episode 7, “Real As F–k” Episodes centered around parties can sometimes go stale, but the penultimate episode of the first season brought each main character in to instigate an unstable love triangle, while Issa throws a benefit party for her nonprofit. There’s a distinct and important conversation about black women’s mental health, and the stigma associated with going to therapy in certain communities. This episode is titled “Real As F–k” for a reason: intense fights between friends and lovers ensue, and the words they use against each other cut deep.
“Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party” Who wouldn’t want to be invited to a dinner party thrown by Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg? The food looks amazing, and the friendship between these two is such a delight to behold.
Best Episode: Episode 2, “Keep Your Claws Off Me” It’s still early for this ongoing series, but so far Rick Ross flirting with Martha Stewart is one of the most unexpected scenes to grace our TV this year. The reaction shots of Ashley Graham’s face as she watches Ricky Rozay give Martha Stewart a massage and tell her “baby got back” are enough to make this episode worth watching over and over again.
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” If there’s anything even remotely good that came out of this year’s noxious election cycle, it’s Samantha Bee’s impassioned eviscerations of the proposed policies from the upcoming Trump administration. Among late night television’s heavily male hosts, Bee is a beacon of fast-talking energy and sharp wit. We have all been starved for a perspective as fresh and scathing as her late night hot takes.
Best Monologue: “The Morning After,” November 9 Bee is Canadian, but she was able to vote in an American election for the first time in 2016, and her first post-election monologue was thought provoking, funny and inspiring, giving us a few much needed laughs in the immediate aftermath of this terrifying presidential election. She provided what she always does: that little burst of energy to do what we can to fight back.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” While it is technically a miniseries, the fact that Ryan Murphy’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” swept the Emmys cannot be ignored. Every role, from Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark to Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran, was perfectly cast and performed. True crime dramas appear to have taken over the popular media landscape, and starting this anthology series with an investigation of the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and the trial against O.J. Simpson is a great beginning to what we hope is another season of a perfectly cast true crime series.
Best Episode: Episode 6, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” The number of ways in which Sarah Paulson should be praised for her endlessly on-point performances are countless. In “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the examination of the implicit sexism involved in the legal case against O.J. Simpson, and the media’s unnecessary criticism of her appearance and character as a female attorney, is comprehensive and sophisticated.
“The Night Of” This late summer sleeper gave us a brilliant new actor in Riz Ahmed, who shines as Naz, a university student accused of murdering a young woman, but who has no recollection of the events that occurred after the night they met, and served as a reminder of the brilliance of John Turturro, plays the attorney tasked with defending him. It also reinforced our hunger for smart, puzzling murder dramas.
Best Episode: Episode 5, “The Season of the Witch” “The Night Of” was enthralling TV because it was as much character study as it was procedural (and god knows we have enough procedurals). When the show truly hummed was when it combined in equal measure the routine of Turturro’s unexpectedly alluring eczema subplot with the particular development’s of Naz’s case, as it does seamlessly in the stellar fifth episode. In both respects, the small details paved the way for the story.
“The Girlfriend Experience” Based on the Steven Soderbergh film featuring adult film star Sasha Grey, the Starz series starring Riley Keough playing a law student-turned-escort threw many male critics for a loop with its unexpected brand of feminism. (An empowered presentation of choosing prostitution over law school is a bold choice for the heroine of a series co-helmed by a woman, the filmmaker Amy Seimetz.) Steeped in darkness both psychological and cinematic, the anthology series gave us a very convincing underworld, and a sometimes breathtaking performance from Keough.
Best Episode: Episode 9, “Blindsided” In one of the most harrowing scenes on TV this year, Keough’s character Christine sees a sex tape of her with a superior leaked around the law office where she interns, leading to Christine having an outright panic attack. It was hard to watch, and all the more because up until now we have watched as she steadily gained power and dominance over men, only to seemingly lose it all at once.
“Divorce”: A soft spot for Sarah Jessica Parker, Molly Shannon, Tracy Letts and creator Sharon Horgan wins the polarizing “Divorce” an honorable mention on this list. “Divorce” is probably not one of the best new shows of the year, but you either love Thomas Haden Church’s bumbling comedic timing or you hate it, and who wouldn’t be envious of SJP’s winter coat collection?
“Black Mirror”: Technically, “Black Mirror” not a new show, but the Netflix revival gave us a remarkable gift: the season three episode “San Junipero,” starring Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, was one of the best episodes of television in 2016. Perhaps one of the least technophobic and most humane episodes of this post-”Twilight Zone” series, “San Junipero” features a bittersweet aura, a fantastic 80’s-inspired soundtrack and some very fun costumes. “Black Mirror” can be hit or miss, but there was almost no way to predict where this episode was headed, which made it one of the richest, most hopeful stories to be told in 2016.
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